Sleazebuster without a red card

Sir Gordon Downey's in-tray is full, but he's a parliamentary watchdog without teeth, writes Chris Blackhurst
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The Independent Online
JUST about the busiest man at Westminster these days is Sir Gordon Downey, the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. In this virtually one-party Parliament devoid of serious debate, dominated by Labour backbenchers with next to nothing to do, Sir Gordon is a whirlwind of activity.

If he thought his workload would decrease with the departure of most members of the Commons' rogues gallery on 1 May last year, Sir Gordon has had to think again. Sleaze is as big an issue in Tony Blair's "fresh- start" Parliament as it ever was. Take last week. Sir Gordon's ruling that Geoffrey Robinson, the Paymaster-General, should have registered his beneficial interest in an offshore trust - but did not break any Commons rule by not registering - was published. Then, Sir Gordon agreed to take up a complaint from a Labour MP, Dale Campbell-Savours, about the activities of Lord Steel, the former Liberal Party leader, on behalf of the pro-hunting lobby, the Countryside Movement. This inquiry by the Commissioner promises to be a red-blooded affair, with Lord Steel angrily denying he has broken any rule.

Set-piece investigations apart, Sir Gordon's time is fully occupied with an unending stream of MPs seeking his advice, desperate to avoid following Lord Steel and becoming the subject of a fellow MP's complaint.

But for all Sir Gordon's high profile and productivity, there are worrying signs the fledgling commi- ssioner system does not work. Sir Gordon is a likeable character: diligent, conscientious, accessible - even to journalists whose stories about alleged malpractice by MPs fill his in-tray. He may be a little grey, but no worse for that.

But perhaps he is too nice, too reasonable, too prepared to give seasoned politicians, who are expert in the art of deflection and disavowal, too much benefit of the doubt.

Take Mr Robinson's case. When the Independent on Sunday disclosed the existence of his family's Channel Islands trust, it seemed clear-cut. Here was a multi-millionaire, a businessman of long experience, well-versed in financial management, who occupied a senior position in the Treasury of a government committed to clamping down on tax avoidance by people using trusts in places like the Channel Islands. Not only that, his interest in the trust was not disclosed in the Register of MPs' interests. Why Guernsey, and why keep it secret? Get out of that one, Mr Robinson.

Thanks to a combination of a resolute Prime Minister refusing to acknowledge a hypocrite when he sees one and a reasonable Parliamentary Commissioner who shies away from calling a spade a spade, the Paymaster-General appears to have done exactly that.

This is where public perception and Westminster reality part. In the public mind, Sir Gordon Downey is the parliamentary Sleazebuster, an equivalent of the old Witchfinder-General roaming the countryside in search of evil. In truth, he is nothing of the sort. He is a dark-suited servant poring over pernickety and ambiguously coded rule books drawn up for him by his cynical political masters. He has no real power. He is a referee without a red or even a yellow card. That muscle resides with MPs on the Committee on Standards and Privileges who receive his reports and decide how to act on them.

Sir Gordon is supposed to be independent, but gives the impression of not daring to speak his mind, of erring on the side of caution. Such politeness and readiness to embrace the excuses of the accused are commendable in most walks of life - but not where politicians in their own internal theatre are concerned. Give an MP an inch and he will take a mile. Say that on the one hand he boobed but that, on the other, his intentions were proper and there are no prizes for guessing the outcome.

In the case of Mr Robinson, Sir Gordon said: "There is no case for saying Mr Robinson has breached a rule of the House on registration." And he added: "Nevertheless, his potential interest in the Orion Trust would have been better registered."

The committee, which is always anxious not to condemn a fellow member no matter how bold its claims to be willing to do so, unanimously backed Sir Gordon's report. The result was an instant statement from Mr Robinson, saying: "I was confident that Sir Gordon Downey would conclude, as he did, 'that there is no case for saying that Mr Robinson has breached a rule of the House on registration'." You can imagine the scene when Mr Robinson next walks into the Commons' Members Bar: congratulatory nods, maybe a few encouraging slaps on the back and warm murmurings of sympathy. The man dubbed the "Minister for Tax Avoidance" by Private Eye magazine has emerged only lightly bruised.

Move on to Lord Steel. Sir David Steel MP, as he was then, was appointed chairman of the Countryside Movement in September 1995 and paid pounds 93,752 for his efforts. He tabled three motions on behalf of the organisation - but after he ceased to be chairman. Mr Campbell-Savours wants Lord Steel to be investigated to see if he broke the Commons rule forbidding paid advocacy. The steely (definitely no pun intended) former Lib-Dem leader will argue the advocacy came after he was being paid, not during his stint. It is possible to predict Sir Gordon's words: "Might have been wiser not to have tabled the motions ... but broke no Commons rule."

While Lord Steel will point to words in italics, most people will not read them. They see the money, they see what he did, and they are not stupid. Sir Gordon, though, will latch on to them, and another rich politician's reputation will have been battered a little, but it will be basically intact.

And MPs wonder why the public has so much disregard for them and their institution. They cling to the letter not the spirit of the rules, then feel hurt when people complain the spirit is no longer there. This is not Sir Gordon's fault. His hands are tied by the system he agreed to serve. The public wants a powerful, single-minded independent adjudicator who can pass verdict and sentence, and is prepared to condemn. It is no surprise that MPs were not prepared to agree to that and trotted out all sorts of pompous, historic - and for a public deeply concerned by the possible corruption of their present day politicians, totally irrelevant - arguments about Parliamentary sovereignty.

Sir Gordon's relationship with the Committee on Standards and Privileges is being discussed, to see if it can be redefined. Martin Bell, the Independent MP who defeated Neil Hamilton, the former minister at the centre of the cash for questions affair, in the general election, says this is the "last chance" for MPs to prove they are capable of putting their own house in order.

Do not hold your breath.